All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Peter Pan – Jessica Owers

on January 12, 2013

Peter PanPeter Pan: The Forgotten Story of Phar Lap’s Successor
Jessica Owers
Random House AU
2011, 479p
Read from my TBR pile

Australia has always been quick to fall in love with a racing icon. From the very early days of Carbine to the mighty Phar Lap, to Bernborough, Tulloch and Dulcify. The eighties roared in with the beautiful Kingston Town and went out with the likes of Super Impose and Better Loosen Up. The mid nineties brought us the quartet of Octagonal, Saintly, Filante and Nothin’ Leica Dane. Might And Power kept the seat warm for Sunline and Makybe Diva and most recently the brilliance of the unbeaten Black Caviar has captivated the nation.

With the news that Phar Lap had died overseas in 1932, the country was plunged into mourning. The big red horse had scored himself a legion of fans with his brave victories, often lumping large weights. Because of the might of Phar Lap, his legacy has lived on with many of this generation still admiring the great horse. Unfortunately, the legend of Peter Pan has faded away somewhat, out of the limelight and Jessica Owers has sought to rectify this with her first novel, devoted to bring the story of the flashy chestnut with the unusual flaxen mane and tail roaring back to front and centre stage.

Peter Pan was almost never born – his breeding was entirely an accident and but for his stunning looks, he might have been sold as a yearling by his owner. There was something about the striking colt that led Rodney Rouse Dangar to hang onto him and it would be one of the greatest decisions he ever made. He didn’t know it yet, but with Peter Pan he was going to fulfill many a dream of his: to breed a champion, to win some of the most prestigious races in the land and to add to his trophy cabinet the scalps that meant something. As a wealthy man, Dangar wasn’t out to race Peter Pan for the prizemoney, which thanks to the Depression, was not what it had been. When it became apparent that he had something special, he focused on a goal each preparation. How the horse got there was left to the capable hands of his trainer, Frank McGrath.

From 1932-1936, Peter Pan raced 39 times for 23 wins, 6 seconds, 1 third and 9 unplaced races. His greatest achievements included not one, but two Melbourne Cups, the AJC Derby (at his fourth start), two Melbourne Stakes (now known as the Mackinnon Stakes, one of the primary preparation races for the Melbourne Cup), the AJC St Leger, 2 AJC Cumberland Plates and a variety of other black type races. His preparations were often interrupted by a niggling recurring injury in one shoulder and his racing manners often left something to be desired. But when Peter Pan was right, he was virtually unbeatable. His £34,240 prizemoney, mostly collected at a time when prizemoney was low, would equate to well over $10 million in current times, probably closer to 15. He had an amazing turn of foot and could break a great horse’s heart.

Despite the horse’s brilliance, he was often much maligned in the press. It seems that Peter Pan had come too soon after the country lost the great Phar Lap and everyone wanted to assure themselves that he wasn’t as good, that he couldn’t be as good. Over time, Peter Pan’s star slowly faded from the mind’s of most people and some don’t know much about him at all. Owers’ book aims to set right the idea that Peter Pan was never as good – in fact, it could be argued that he was better….

I bought my father a copy of this book for Christmas last year because I have always known that he was an avid Peter Pan fan and one of those who believe that he was a better horse than Phar Lap. His two Melbourne Cups cannot be ignored by his die hard fans, including one that was run on the wettest track ever and during which the horse lumped 9st 11lb, which would equate to around 62kg on the current scale. He could’ve won a third one but was weighted right out of it with a whopping 10st 6lb which would be 66.2kg. When Dad finished, he raved about it – and this was from a man who might read maybe one book every 2 years. Peter Pan also missed a spring carnival so for some, it’s also a case of what could’ve been for this horse, had he not suffered from his mysterious injury.

Meticulously researched, Peter Pan takes the reader through the unusual way in which he came into the world and from then on through every race start. It’s amazingly detailed, each race lovingly described without the benefit of easy-to-access race replays like in this day and age. You can get a sense of the excitement, the atmosphere that is so prevalent on a racetrack when a champion steps out. This has clearly been a labour of love, it took five years out of the author’s life and the polished finished copy shows just how much time and effort has been spent on constructing it. The characters come to life – the gentleman owner, the astute trainer, the various jockeys and Peter Pan’s devoted strapper.

I’m a little biased, because I’ve been around the racing industry for a long time, even though I am not directly involved. My father is a former bookmaker who spent a lot of time at the tracks – in the late 80s he was privileged enough to see a horse belonging to one of his friends run 2nd in the WS Cox Plate and back it up with a win in the Victoria Derby. In high school my best friend was the daughter of the local top trainer and I spent many an hour at their stables, getting to know the various racers like they were my own. And it is the industry in which my husband makes our living, albeit a different code now, having moved on from his horse racing days some years ago. It’s something I have a soft spot for, the excitement and the passion that envelops its participants. And on Melbourne Cup Day, and other special days around the nation, everyone is a part of it. The sport has its detractors, and probably always will. But it’s an integral part of the Australian landscape, both culturally and financially and it’s virtually impossible to imagine a world without horse racing in it.

Peter Pan is definitely a must-read for the avid racing fan.


Book #282 of 2012

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